by Kenneth Lota
5 January 2016
The Leftovers is one of the most brilliant and utterly distinctive shows on television right now. The first season was excellent, and the recently-concluded second season was quite possibly the most unpredictable and memorable season of television I have ever seen. There are many factors contributing to the show’s high quality – the deft performances form every single member of the show’s ever-expanding cast, the thoughtful visual direction, the wrenching music by Max Richter – but the truly outstanding thing about the show is the writing, most of which is credited to former Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrota, whose novel was the basis for the show’s first season. The thing that makes the show’s writing unique is its utter refusal to offer the audience resolution on the levels of plot or emotion. No other show I have seen has been quite this brave in this respect.
The initial premise of The Leftovers makes it seem like a conventional science-fiction show: one day, without explanation, 2% of the world’s human population suddenly vanishes into thin air all at once. What happened? Was it the Rapture? Alien abduction? Nobody in the show’s world knows, and, as the show makes quite clear, the audience never will either. The show is not about the disappearance, but about its psychological aftermath for those left behind. Some people might be tempted to watch this show as if it were in the vein of something like Flashforward or, indeed, Lindelof’s previous show Lost, shows that set up mysteries with the implicit promise of eventual explanations. In such shows, the plot mechanics of how and why mysterious things happen are as important to audience enjoyment as the characters themselves are. In The Leftovers, however, there are no answers; something happened, and neither the characters nor we will ever know how or why. Rather than look for explanations, we are encouraged simply to watch the characters attempt to deal with the devastating psychological and philosophical consequences of the unexplained “Departure.”
Within this context, the show focuses on a number of interrelated characters. The first season centered on the tension between a nihilistic cult called the Guilty Remnant and everyone else who lives in the small town of Mapleton, New York. While most people are attempting to live their lives more or less as they had before the Departure, the Guilty Remnant believes that the Departure has completely changed how people must look at their existences. The Guilty Remnant (almost) never speak, wear exclusively white clothing, communicate only in writing, chain smoke cigarettes constantly, and force people to confront the reality of what happened. The Remnant seem to believe that the Departure has revealed a fundamental lack of order or meaning in human life, and therefore live with a sort of death-wish. (They smoke in order to give themselves lung cancer.) The conflict between the Remnant and the rest of the town is particularly embodied in the characters of Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the town’s police chief, and his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who has left her husband and joined the Remnant.
If the first season provided an intense confrontation between the lived experience of meaninglessness and conventional order, the second season delves into even stranger and more nuanced territory. After the conflict with the Guilty Remnant comes to a head, Kevin, his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), his new girlfriend Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), and the baby they have adopted (it’s complicated) leave Mapleton for the town of Jarden, Texas, which has become colloquially known as “Miracle” due to the fact that it was the only community on Earth that did not lose a single person on the day of the Departure. Their attempts to find peace and solace there, however, are endangered by a number of mysterious forces, including an earthquake, the violently skeptical man named John Murphy living next door (Kevin Carroll), Kevin’s visions of the ghost of a dead Guilty Remnant leader (Ann Dowd), and the activities of a newly resurgent Guilty Remnant led by Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler). (There’s a lot more plot and many more characters I’m leaving out for the sake of brevity.)
The second season is even more complex and ambitious than the first. Part of its uniqueness comes from its interlocking narrative structure – each episode centers on the point of view of a single character, with the chronology going back and forth between episodes. Even more remarkable, however, is the show’s thematic complexity and ambiguity. Much of the season centers on the question of whether or not the town of “Miracle” is indeed special in some way. Was it deliberately spared from the Departure, as its inhabitants seem to think? Or was its escape from the Departure simply random? Given that we’ll never know what caused the Departure in the first place, there is no definitive answer to these questions, for us or for the characters. John Murphy insists that there is nothing special about the town, telling Kevin that “There are no miracles in Miracle,” and going so far as to assault and burn down the houses of those he suspects of defrauding others on the basis of the town’s reputation. And yet we do see a number of seemingly miraculous things happen in the town (exactly what I will leave unspoiled for those who have yet to see the season). Each apparent miracle could have something to do with the town, or it could simply be due to random luck. As no definitive explanation is forthcoming, each character reacts in accordance with their own understanding.
Most shows offer clear resolutions to their plots as a way of comforting audiences. In any given network channel formula detective series, we can rest assured on a week-to-week basis that the crime will be solved and the criminals brought to justice. On Doctor Who, the Doctor consistently manages to save the person/city/planet/galaxy, frequently reassuring us that of all the things he’s seen across space and time, humanity is special and wonderful. The Leftovers will have none of this handholding. It explicitly confronts us with the possibility that the universe is random and chaotic and our existences ultimately meaningless, but refuses to definitively state that such is surely the case.
There does seem to be a trend of such existentialist television lately, but no other show is quite as bold in its philosophical outlook as The Leftovers. The first season of True Detective explored the idea of a meaningless universe through the development of Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle, but ultimately backpedaled on Rust’s nihilistic convictions. The first season of Fargo pitted the decency and wholesomeness of Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) against the chaotic worldview of Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), but ultimately granted victory to Molly. Rick and Morty explicitly deals with the possibility of a meaningless universe (or universes, in that show’s case), but offers us the consolation of laughter. The Leftovers has yet to backpedal or compromise in any way from its bleak implications. Some characters might find happiness and meaning, but such moments are always fragile and contingent, and the show does not let us forget that the characters’ view of things is purely a matter of interpretation. We’re never going to be told whether the Guilty Remnant is right (abrasive though they may be, their philosophy often seems compelling within the world of the show), whether the believers of Miracle are right, or indeed whether anyone at all really understands what’s going on. Much like in real life, there are no definitive answers and no one with indisputable authority to tell us what to think; and, for that reason above all others, The Leftovers is the most essential work of art currently on American television.
Kenneth Lota is a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He focuses on twentieth-century American literature.